by Roger Kimball
Let’s talk about John Brennan a bit. You remember John Brennan. He was Barack Obama’s director of the CIA. Once upon a time, he was an enthusiast for Gus Hall, the Communist candidate for president, for whom he voted in 1976. I can’t think of any better background for the head of the country’s premier intelligence service under Obama. In 2014, having put childish things behind him as St. Paul advised, Brennan spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee. He denied it indignantly. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We wouldn’t do that. That’s just beyond the scope of reason in terms of what we’d do.”
But that was before irrefutable evidence of the CIA’s spying transpired. Then Brennan apologized, sort of. Senators were outraged. They shook their little fists. “What did he know? When did he know it? What did he order?” asked one of the Lilliputians.
Guess what happened to John Brennan for spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee?
If you said “Nothing,” go to the head of the class and collect your gold star.
Nothing happened to Brennan for spying on U.S. senators.
If he could get away with that, what else could he get away with?
How about starting the bogus investigation into fictional “collusion” or “coordination” between the Russians and the campaign, and then the administration, of Donald Trump? How about that?
In Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy offers a meticulously researched overview of the origins and character of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible links between Trump and the Russians. That began in May 2017, shortly after Trump fired James Comey from his post as Director of the FBI. McCarthy also looks carefully at the background to that investigation, operation “Crossfire Hurricane” and several tributary investigations into possible Russian collusion with various U.S. persons and entities. Crossfire Hurricane began on July 31, 2016, about three months before the presidential election.
Was that the beginning of the Obama Administration’s inquiry into Donald Trump’s possible connections with “the Russians”? No, the inquiries begin even earlier. You may remember the excited article in the New York Times, “How the Russia Inquiry Began,” from December 20, 2017. According to this story, it all started in London in May 2016. It was a dark-and-stormy night—or at least a night of “heavy drinking”—when “George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to [Alexander Downer] Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.” (In fact, the “heavy drinking” consisted of “a couple of gins and tonic,” but, hey this is the New York Times. Details are for the little people.)
So was it? Was this wet-behind-the-ears minor factotum the fons et origo of the Russian inquiry? Nope. “In truth,” as McCarthy notes in his book, “by then it had been going on for several months—since at least the latter half of 2015, not long after Donald Trump entered the GOP nomination chase and before most anyone had ever heard of George Papadopoulos.”
Ball of Collusion is a herculean investigatory effort. But McCarthy sadly concludes that both the origins and the exact nature of the inquiry remain shrouded in mystery. “When did the investigation start?” he asks. “Why did it start? What kind of investigation was it? It has proved impossible to get straight answers to these questions.”
With Flynn Revelations, We’re Getting Warmer
Think about how odd this situation is. Several writers have compiled timelines of the investigation. The one by Sharyl Attkisson is one of the best. But at the end of the day, we are left with sodden black swampiness where answers should be. When did the inquiry start? Why did it start? Who started it? The public does not have answers to these questions, but recent revelations about the concerted efforts to entrap General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security advisor, have transported us all back to the children’s game of find-the-treasure.
We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting warmer, we’re getting warmer.
I suspect that John Brennan is a key player in this story. As journalist Lee Smith noted in February 2018, it was Brennan who first leaned on James Comey to take an interest in the salacious dossier compiled by Christopher Steele from July through December 2016. Indeed, Brennan once took credit for starting the inquiry. “I was aware,” Brennan said on “Meet the Press,” “of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion—cooperation occurred. . . . I made sure that anything that was involving U.S. persons, including anything involving the individuals involved in the Trump campaign, was shared with the bureau.” Smith parses this:
In other words, the FBI investigation didn’t start when the Australians, according to the Times—or the Brits, according to Brennan’s most recent version of the story—contacted the FBI after the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting. No, it started when the director of the CIA decided to start an investigation, when Brennan passed on information and intelligence to the FBI, and signaled that the bureau better act on it.
Brennan’s nudge worked. In the summer of 2016, the FBI sent counterintelligence agents, one of whom was Peter Strzok—remember him?—to London to meet with Downer to describe his meeting with Papadopoulos.
So where are we? Over the last week or two, we have learned that the FBI set a perjury trap for Flynn. They induced him to plead guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI by threatening to charge his son with a process crime. When Flynn’s then-lawyers objected that they thought him innocent, the FBI threatened to make them part of the case. We know all this partly because of the heroic efforts of Flynn’s new lawyer, Sidney Powell, who managed to get the Department of Justice to disgorge various documents damaging to the FBI.
The pièce de la résistance were the notes of a meeting taken by senior FBI official Bill Priestap. “What is our goal?” Priestap asked, “Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Or maybe they should just “get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ + have them decide.”
The Dog That Didn’t Bark
That gun was still smoking when Richard Grenell, acting director of national intelligence, released the names of 39 top Obama officials who made 53 requests to “unmask” Flynn’s name from intelligence reports between Election Day 2016 and the end of January 2017. Among the requestors were Joe Biden, James Clapper (then director of national intelligence), Samantha Power (then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations), and Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of Staff.
Andrew McCarthy has shown how the most significant thing about these unmaskings may be the dog that didn’t bark—there was no unmasking request for December 29, 2016, the date that Flynn, then on holiday in the Dominican Republic, made his famous call to Sergei Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the United States. McCarthy speculates that the call was intercepted by “an intelligence program not subject to the masking rules, probably by the CIA or a friendly foreign spy service.”
Several days later, on January 5, Obama met with Susan Rice, his national security advisor, Biden, Comey, Clapper, Sally Yates, and—yep—John Brennan to discuss the Russian inquiry in general and Flynn in particular.
On January 20, 2017, the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated, just moments before leaving her position, Susan Rice took the unusual step of writing an email for the file summarizing that January 5 meeting:
President Obama began the conversation by stressing his continued commitment to ensuring that every aspect of this issue is handled by the Intelligence and law enforcement communities ‘by the book.’ From a national security perspective, however, President Obama said he wants to be sure that, as we engage with the incoming team, we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.
Let’s have an instant replay of that last bit: “Obama said he wants to be sure that . . . we are mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia.”
Again: The outgoing president tells his senior intelligence staff to think about whether to tell the incoming administration the truth about a major national security issue.
It’s almost as if they didn’t believe there had been an election on November 8, 2016. Not a real election anyway, because, after all, the American people had chosen the wrong person. Fortunately, there they were to save the day by keeping the incoming fellow in the dark.
Undoing a Free and Fair Election
And they had reasons, lots of them. It’s true that Obama scoffed at Mitt Romney when he said during the 2012 campaign that Russia was the single biggest geopolitical security threat. “The 1980s are now calling,” he said, “to ask for their foreign policy back.”
But that was before the advent of Donald Trump. No one really took Trump seriously at first, but still. He was saying alarming things about Obama’s deal with Iran, alarming things about NATO, alarming things about wanting to get along with Vladimir Putin, not to mention all the alarming things he said about immigration, trade deals, federal judges, regulation, Islamic terrorism, and taxes.
Again, it’s true that it was Obama who told Putin’s stand-in Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the election. But now there seemed to be Russian meddling in our politics: maybe it involved Trump? We know now that Brennan suppressed intelligence indicating that Russia wanted Hillary, a known quantity, to win, not Trump. That went against The Narrative.
A recent article by Margot Cleveland in The Federalist asks the essential question: “Why did Obama tell the FBI to hide its activities from the Trump administration?” Answer: because those activities amounted to an effort to undo the results of a free open and democratic election.
Mollie Hemingway is right: what we are coming to see is “not just a typical battle between political foes, nor merely an example of media bias against political enemies. Instead, this entire operation was a deliberate and direct attack on the foundation of American governance.” That’s why I have repeatedly called it “the biggest political scandal in our nation’s history.” It was an effort to overturn the results of an election by stealth.
It’s not, I think, that the central figures in this drama—Comey and Clapper, Page and Strzok, Brennan, McCabe, Rice, and Obama himself—it’s not as if they said: “Let’s mount a coup d’état against Donald Trump.” No, it was less straightforward and more discreditable. They said to themselves, “Donald Trump is impossible. The people made a mistake. We know better. Let’s mobilize the police and intelligence power of the state to make sure that virtue—that is, our political agenda—prevails.”
That way lies tyranny, which is always more palatable when swaddled in the conviction of its own virtue. I am uncertain to what extent the chief actors in this malignant farce understand the extent of their culpability. I hope that Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham will be on hand to enlighten them. This must never be allowed to happen again.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).